LETTER FROM PALERMO
Posted by Tony THOMAS
Welcome to Palermo but don't mention the M.fia!
We, being laden-down and confused tourists, arrived at Palermo Central Station on a quiet Thursday evening. We found the taxi rank and a helpful concierge there directed us to a taxi in the middle, a small surprise. We showed our apartment address and the driver got under way while chatting on his mobile. The route seemed very circuitous and the bill came to 17 Euro. Giving the driver the benefit of the doubt, I tipped him one Euro. We found next day that the direct route was a mere 3km, in fact we walked it later. The taxi concierge had directed us to his pal as specially plump victims. The driver also turbocharged his meter.
It's small-scale stuff but part of the culture here: ‘if it's a tourist, fleece it’. On the grand scale, the local mafia has dominated the place for a century, except for a bloody interlude in the 1980s when intruders from Corleone killed 1000 city rivals.
The mafia's hey-day was 1950-80, when it literally ran the place, selling parklands, school sites, clinics etc to builders of shoddy apartments. There was the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410AD and locals here refer to the mafia's 'sack of Palermo'.
Mussolini saw the mafiosi as rivals and imprisoned hordes of them. The arrestees persuaded the invading Americans that they were the cruelly-treated anti-Fascist resistance, and were rewarded with government posts and mayordoms.
Lately, the Mafia has been tapping funding from the European Commission. Robbing ratepayers is naughty but who is the victim if a few billion Euros of EC and World Bank funding vaguely dissolves in half-assed Palermo projects? The Italian Foreign Ministry estimated this year that total Italian mafia turnover is Euro 200bn p.a. compared with the EU budget of Euro 140bn. I have an image of the Mafia as Danae, naked and with legs akimbo, being impregnated with showers of gold from the EC, playing Zeus.
On Sunday evening we went to see Bellini's Norma at Palermo's opera house, the biggest in Europe behind Paris and Vienna. The acoustics were as good as claimed but the production director, a German, for some reason had updated Gaul's Druidic struggle against the Romans to the 1960s, with men in suits armed with rifles and the hero in horn-rimmed glasses. Yawn. The opera house shut in 1974 for some safety improvements, but thanks to mafia-augmented cost overruns and official red tape, the funds ran out, the roof leaked, and this magnificent place mouldered away for 20 years, finally reopening in 1997. Try imagining, say, the Sydney Opera House as a spectacular ruin for 20 years.
Just north of the opera house is the Palace of Justice, a huge monolithic building flying the EC and Italian flags. The site must have involved a hectare of slum clearance, and slums still border the precinct. The style? Mussolini would love it. The builders? Count in some mafia companies.
The mafia's bread-and-butter business is protection money from business, called the 'pizzo', and unlike official taxes, payment is enforced from 80% of Palermo businesses, who pay about Euro 160m a year. In 1991 a small business refusenik got three bullets in the head. Supermarkets in Palermo are also mafia-influenced, rather as if Coles shoppers were assisting the Bandidos while Woolie's shoppers were being skimmed by the Commancheros.
In 2004 a group of five young graduates revolted against the pizzo and started a community-wide movement called 'Addio Pizzo' ('Bye bye Pizzo'). Motto: "A whole people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity." About 200 businesses have put up Addio Pizzo logos, seeking preferment from shoppers, rather like use of the "Australian made" logo. I didn't notice any logos, but wasn't looking out for them.
We were rubbernecking in the 900-year old Palermo Cathedral), which is austere compared with the Baroque-run-riot style of some churches and the lurid gold and mosaic-encrusted palaces from when Palermo was a top-four city in Europe. The cathedral had the usual niches for long-dead saints and big-wigs. But in the middle of the south side was a modern niche with a brown marble tomb and educational signs and posters.
The tomb commemorated Father Guiseppe Puglisi, then 56, who was shot in 1993 with a silenced pistol by a Mafia hitman Gaspare Spatuzza because the priest was proselytising among youngsters in the slums where the Mafia recruits its foot-soldiers. He also caused offence by refusing to let mafiosi "men of honor" march at the head of devotional processions, a long-standing Palermo tradition. Puglisi's archbishop Cardinal Ruffini used to deny the mafia even existed: "So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent," the Cardinal argued.
The assassination caused an uproar and forced the Church to stop pussy-footing around (to some extent) with the Mafia, one edict ordering that not even a dead Mafiosa should be admitted within church unless he had repented. Puglisi was beatified in May 2013 as 'the first martyr of the mafia'.
We had another take on the problem when we went on an ill-starred expedition to the stunning Norman cathedral at Monreale, crowning a steep hill about 8km out of town. The bus service was awful, ie we waited an hour, and all on the bus were tipped out at the foothill, without explanation even for the out-of-town Italian sight-seers. It turned out that we needed to transfer to a mini-bus for the final stage. Anyway the cathedral lived up to its reputation of 1000 years and was covered with quaint mosaic versions of medieval-Biblical life, with a Noah's ark including peasants poking their heads out of the portholes. There had been some extensive renovations and I learnt later that the Bishop of Monreale, no less, had been indicted for siphoning renovation funds.
I was intrigued by a map reference to a piazza of the "13 Victims" at the seafront end of Via Cavour, imagining these were Mafia victims.
On the way there to inspect, I noticed a placard outside a tobacco kiosk featuring a pig's head and a header (translated): "New Mafia, Old Horrors". It took me a while to work out that it was a Palermo magazine, and I bought a copy for 3 Euro. Good value for 98 pages of anti-mafia stories by a gutsy editorial crew. Strangely, the production was as glossy as Marie Claire, and with 20 pages with full-color ads by equally gutsy businesses. (The first ad, I'm embarrassed to report, featured the "Fuck Boredom" fashion label, that used English). Contents were a montage of anti-corruption and mobster exposes, with plenty of incriminating scanned documents, portraits of malefactors and leaked cop-photos of homicide crime-scenes. It seems that the mafia is no longer willing to enter the glare of publicity by bumping off respectable and prominent opponents, e.g. clerics and dare I say, journalists, and instead diverts its energies into lucrative white-collar crime. The magazine had been coming out monthly for seven years. Notwithstanding the HSU and AWU unions, I can't see Melbourne supporting a 100-page monthly of crime and corruption exposes.
When I got to the 13 Victims piazza, I headed for old-fashioned monument on my right, in a patch of weeds, untended shrubs and junk. I felt a bit indignant but zooming in for a pic, discovered the victims were executed there in 1860 as revolutionaries by Bourbon soldiers, not mafiosi. My tunnel vision had distracted stupid me from a red-rusted steel tower four storeys tall in the centre of the roundabout, within a neat sea of grass. The script (translated) read, "To the fallen in the fight against the mafia".
I couldn't get up-close because the park was railed off, but I noticed a wreath against the railing on the other side. I went around and found the flowers were real, not plastic, probably put there the day before. There was a picture of a bloke in a white suit with his baby-blue Fiat and a three word message translating to "You are our life" but no name or detail. Weirdly, his original pork-pie type hat was literally spiked on the fence. (My spouse later suggested that it was an anniversary of his murder).
An open deck red tourist bus went past and I watched to see if anyone turned towards the steel tower. No-one did, clearly this was not featured on the pretty-Palermo commentary.
Right behind and alongside the waterfront were several lumps of what was left of a big castle, with paddock around the lumps. This was a complete-ish castle until 1922 with a fine history of repelling invaders, but then the Port Authority on a whim knocked it down for some project that never eventuated. The paddock is now in use for hideously amplified music night entertainments, which we suffered that night at our flat 12 blocks away.
Back at Central Station, our scheduled train had become fictional. I can't believe that even Mussolini made the trains run on time.